Want to Boost Employee Engagement? Empower Your Team Leaders

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RiderOn Monday, and again on Thursday, we explored The Marcus Buckingham Company’s  (TMBC) StandOut Global Engagement Index (GEI) and the reasons why employee engagement levels are so low these days. We concluded yesterday by saying that we only have ourselves to blame: employee engagement levels are dismal because “we haven’t equipped the people who facilitate engagement with the tools they need to do that,” says Marcus Buckingham, founder of TMBC.

These “people who facilitate engagement” are the team leaders — not organizational leaders — and we need to empower and support them if we want to solve the employee engagement crisis.

TMBC intends the GEI to be the first free tool that team leaders can use to measure engagement levels on their teams. Of course, measuring the problem may be an important step, but it isn’t the same thing as solving the problem.

And so, we conclude our series on the GEI with a look at Buckingham’s suggestions for how we can move from measuring employee engagement properly to actually improving employee engagement levels on our teams.

‘We Need to Change Our Intervention Points’

For Buckingham, this is what improving employee engagement comes down to: changing our intervention points. We currently deal with employee engagement as an organizational issue, but, as we saw in previous articles, employee engagement is actually a team issue.

Buckingham decries the state of affairs in which we leave our “poor, overwhelmed, over-capacity team leaders.” We give them half-assed, essentially useless “tools” and little support, and then expect them to do something about employee engagement.

The first step toward improving this situation, Buckingham says, is to place employee engagement measurement and data solely into the hands of team leaders.

“If you are an organization and you do any kind of engagement survey, you should say this to your people: ‘The first and only people to see engagement data will be the team leader,'” Buckingham says.

Currently, team leaderUmbrellas are the last people to see engagement data. It goes to the top of the organization first, and then to HR, and then — eventually — to the team leaders who need it most. By this point, the data is outdated and useless.

“Flip it around 100 percent,” Buckingham urges. “Moving forward, all employee engagement measurements should begin with the team and the team leader.”

The organization should feel free to aggregate data for an overall organizational picture, but that’s really all the organization needs the data for. Team leaders are the ones who can really make use of it, so they should be in control of collecting and analyzing the data.

“Rather than saying engagement should be centrally triggered and cascaded down, it should be locally triggered and aggregated up,” Buckingham says.

Buckingham acknowledges that this idea is “radical” and will “throw everybody for a loop in the employee engagement world,” but he also firmly believes this change is necessary.

“Gallup’s been measuring engagement for 20 years, and it’s not moving,” Buckingham says. “It’s not moving because we’re giving the data to the wrong audience.”

Give Team Leaders the Ability to Create and Command Dynamic Teams

Once employee engagement data is placed in the right hands, the next step is to give team leaders a way to break out of rigid organizational hierarchies. What they need instead is the ability to manage dynamic teams. 

“The future of work is networks of dynamic teams. It is not org. chart hierarchies,” Buckingham says.

Remember our previous article on the GEI, when Buckingham spoke about how sports video games give players the ability to create and control their own teams? This is essentially what Buckingham means when he talks about “dynamic teams.” Part of the reason engagement levels are so low, Buckingham believes, is that team leaders cannot get the most from their people unless they have the ability to create and manage dynamic teams.

As Buckingham points out, employees’ roles may be static on paper — and in our data systems — but that’s not how work really gets done.

“Even if you’re working in a tiny, isolated branch of [a big company], you still have a lot of ad hoc teams coming together to get the work done,” Buckingham says. “Whether it’s Disney or Google or Facebook, or the investment banks or the large consultancies, or Patagonia or LululePoppiesmon, everybody has people rolling on and rolling off teams all the time.”

We need to embrace this reality, and make it easier for team leaders to manage accordingly. Companies are run through dynamic networks of teams that come together, tackle projects, and dissolve.

“The source of truth in companies has moved away from our people metadata and to the team leader who knows who he has, who is on which team right now,” Buckingham says. “That’s where performance and engagement happens.”

The problem is, Buckingham says, we don’t have the right software for this reality. We’re still using software that focuses on the “people metadata.”

“All of our software is designed to measure where people are according to their org. chart hierarchies,” Buckingham says. “We’ve got this weird world where all of our people systems are irrelevant to the real-world people challenges that a team leader faces. Until we get that changed, we will never be able to serve the team leader who is simply grappling with the real-world challenge of getting the most out of the people who are working on her team right now.”

In other words: our software needs to be a lot more like an Xbox sports game.

“We have all got to — all of us in leadership and all of us in HR, frankly — put pressure, big-time pressure, on our software providers,” Buckingham says. “We should ask for one thing, again and again and again and again. We should ask for dynamic team creation capability.”

Give leaders the ability to visualize, organize, and lead dynamic teams, and you may be surprised just how much more engaged and productive your company’s teams become.

By Matthew Kosinski